For opening trick, O's provide fans with a day of magic

For opening trick, O's offer a day of magic

Largest opening crowd at park greeted to rout

April 02, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

It didn't matter that the New York Yankees had won five American League pennants during the past six years, or that the Orioles had won so little since 1997 that the fans don't even talk about October anymore.

It didn't matter that Yankees ace Roger Clemens owned a record six Cy Young Awards or that Orioles starter Scott Erickson was pitching with a reconstructed right elbow that had yet to be tested in a regular-season game.

Opening Day has its own kind of magic ... and, for one shining afternoon at Camden Yards, it was all Orioles Magic.

Former Orioles manager Johnny Oates threw a ball 35 mph and got a standing ovation.

Clemens threw the ball 95 mph for 4 1/3 innings and got booed off the field.

Third baseman Tony Batista hit the first Opening Day grand slam in Baltimore in 20 years and the rebuilding Orioles scored a resounding 10-3 victory yesterday before a sellout crowd of 48,058 - the largest season-opening crowd in the history of the ballpark.

"It's encouraging any time you beat a team like the Yankees - they're so good," said manager Mike Hargrove, "but you can't look past the fact that we've got 161 left to play."

Maybe not, but the Orioles were coming off an uplifting 20-win exhibition season and needed something like this to link their spring success to the regular season.

The unlikely one-sided victory provided the perfect send-off for the club's 10th anniversary season at Oriole Park on a day when the organization celebrated the past and embarked on what the youth-oriented Orioles and their fans can only hope will be a bright future.

All-but-certain future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, who retired at the end of the 2001 season, visited his former teammates before the game and witnessed the start of the post-Ripken era from his luxury box on the club level. He stayed largely out of sight for most of the game but got a nice ovation when he was shown on the video scoreboard alongside Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley in the ninth inning.

There was something strangely symmetrical about Batista taking center stage in his first game as Ripken's full-time replacement at third base, but no one wanted to cast the club's uplifting opener as a giant step out of the Iron Man's shadow.

"Cal was such a big part of the Orioles for such a long time," Hargrove said. "I don't think we ever want to shake Cal's shadow."

Oates provided the most poignant moment of the afternoon when he was brought to tears by the ovation he received when he went to the mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

He was honored in part because he was the manager of the club when Oriole Park opened 10 years ago and also because of his courageous and inspiring battle against brain cancer.

"I was much more nervous than I was getting ready to play that first game here [in 1992]," Oates said. "What an honor. What a privilege. What a thrill. It's just a very special day to come back to Baltimore."

Of course, it figured to be a special day in Maryland sports history regardless of the performance of the Orioles, who were cast in the unusual role of opening act for many local fans who were warming up for last night's Maryland-Indiana NCAA national championship game in Atlanta, won by the Terps.

The ballpark was trimmed with the traditional red, white and blue bunting and the huge Fort McHenry flag was unfurled over the ivy wall in center field during the national anthem. The Orioles continued their tradition of rolling out an orange carpet from center field to second base for pre-game introductions.

The temperature was a cool 62 degrees at game time. There wasn't a cloud in the sky.

"This is the best place for baseball," said Dave Wisniewski of Abingdon. "If we could just get one pennant here, it would make a world of difference."

Some fans got a little grumpy when the Orioles' public address system did not play John Denver's "Thank God I'm A Country Boy" during the seventh-inning stretch, but even that could not be held against the team's oft-embattled front office on this day. All major-league clubs still are under orders from baseball commissioner Bud Selig to play "God Bless America" in honor of the heroes and victims of Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism.

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